A trip to the Jewish past – and future – of Poland

A trip to the Jewish past – and future – of Poland

Poland has been a meaningful place in Jewish history in which the Hasidic movement had a remarkable role. Most of it was destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, however, in past few decades there has been a growing interest there in the Jewish heritage and many youngsters with Jewish background are searching for their roots and connecting with the revived Jewish communities and various organizations in Poland and abroad that support and encourage them.

Shavei Israel, based in Jerusalem, has been involved in this and has been actively searching for ways to expand its activities there, specifically by working with local  Jewish people and entities.

In 2021 Shavei Israel was involved in Hanukah celebration in the Łódź Jewish Community and now we were thrilled to take part and participate in the Experiential Seminar in Poland on Polish Judaism and Hasidism, Past and Present. Shavei Israel was represented by Mrs. Chaya Riera who is in charge of  the Shavei Israel Polish desk.

The seminar took place around Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish celebration of nature, and included two Tu B’Shevat seders, one with the Łódź Jewish community and the refugees from Ukraine that it’s hosting, and the second at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

In addition, they celebrated Shabbat with the Łódź Jewish community, and visited Jewish and Hasidic sites and museums in Kraków, Warsaw, Łódź, Brezsko, Tarnów, Lelów, Radomsko, and Aleksandrów Łódzki. They met Poles that discovered their Jewish roots, local residents and activists who are taking care of preserving and reviving the Polish Jewish heritage and they learned about Polish Judaism and Hasidism, both past and present.

The seminar combined academic knowledge and cultural musical activities, and focused on meeting people, places, ideas, tales and leading figures of Polish Hasidism.

The seminar was created, initiated, and coordinated by Dr. Dina Feldman, an Israeli activist in preserving the Polish Jewish heritage and promoting Polish–Israeli encounters and corporations. It was led by Rabbi Dr. Zeev Kitsis, editor and writer in the field of Hasidism, one of the founders of the “Zusha – The Chassidic Story” and its editor-in-chief, teacher of Hasidic literature at various academic institutes and a performer of Hassidic and original musical work.

The seminar was a partnership between the Łódź Jewish community, the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, “Zusha – The Chassidic Story”, and Shavei Israel.

The seminar was open to guides, educators, researchers, as well as those interested in Polish-Jewish heritage. The seminar was held in Hebrew and English, and included imparting information, memories, Hasidic tales, and music. It was based on interpersonal, intercultural, experiential encounters. 

Rabbi Dr. Zeev Kitsis expounded on the trip, “It was a journey of three axes; Seemingly different though actually very connected. The first axis was ‘Memory’ – we jumped between meetings with people who dedicate their lives and work to preserving memory and erecting/maintaining tombstones for Poland’s lost Jewry.

“The second axis, ‘Hasidism’ was where we saw Hasidic sites and dealt with the great teachers/scholars of Polish Hasidism. This was an important complement to the memorial sites, because in doing so we brought back to life not only the Jews, but also the wonderful Judaism that had disappeared from this complex land/country.

“And the third axis, I call it ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ – the meeting with the refugees in Lodz and the wonderful Tu B’Shevat seder that we held there with Rabbi David Szychovsky. Here we did not deal with the past but with the present and even the future. The seder in three languages ​​(Polish, Hebrew and Ukrainian), and actually in One – the language of unity and love of a people who want life, a people who have not only a past, but also a glorious and exciting present and future!”

Chaya Riera, representative of Shavei Israel and the only participant in the trip who did not have Polish roots, had much to say about the trip, “The experience of this seminar was powerful. Accompanying my colleagues as we visited the graves of their ancestors, getting to know first-hand the communities with which Shavei Israel works and seeing up close how both Jews and Poles work together in order to rescue the memory of the Jewry in Poland, all this left me with a taste of hope and enthusiasm to continue working and increasing efforts to help those who want to return to their roots.”

ZIH, the Jewish Historical Institute, there they have an archive of the Warsaw Ghetto called Oneg Shabat by Emanuel Ringelblum

Tu B’Shevat seder with Rav Itzchak Rapoport, Rabbi of the Warsaw Jewish community, and his wife Chaya Rapoport

Jewish cemetery in Warsaw